A Piece of the Old West

June 1, 2007
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In October 2006, Precision Surveys Inc., a rapidly growing survey firm headed by Larry Medrano, PS, was retained for a most interesting, challenging--and controversial--development project. The young firm of 13 years was called on by SunCal Companies, a privately held development company in the western United States, to perform an ALTA/ACSM Land Title Survey of the remaining portion of the locally renowned Town of Atrisco Grant in Albuquerque, N.M. All told, the job would require extraordinary efforts by the staff of Precision Surveys to surmount the obstacles of research; time, personnel and equipment coordination; Mother Nature; and local controversy over the sale of the property.



Mother Nature provided for a long, wet, muddy first day for Surveyor Neto Rey Terrazas when he got his truck stuck in the mud on his way to the project site.

A Rich History Leads to Controversy

In 1692, King Charles II of Spain granted the land on the western edge of New Mexico to Spanish soldier Don Fernando Duran y Chavez as a reward for his efforts during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As the area attracted more settlers, the grant was enlarged in 1760 and became known as the Atrisco Land Grant. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican American War in 1848 required that the United States of America recognize the grantholders’ claims to these grants. In May of 1896, the Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington authorized an official survey of the land, which finalized the Atrisco Land Grant at 82,728.72 acres. For many years following, many parcels were sold off, creating the current patchwork of land ownership.

Land usage varied during the first half of the 20th century, so in 1967, the heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant developed Westland Development Co. Inc. to manage their interests. Years later, in early 2006, attention to the Atrisco Land Grant escalated with the proposed sale of 57,000 acres to SunCal. A small but vocal number of the heirs were reluctant to sell their shares for various reasons, the most common being that they felt their heritage and legacy were being sold. Others believed the price offered was too low. In the end, the majority of the heirs voted to sell the land in late 2006. To address the concerns of the heirs, SunCal New Mexico established the Atrisco Heritage Foundation to honor and protect the Atrisco tradition. The company provided an initial donation of $2,000,000 to begin the Foundation, and it vows to contribute $1,000,000 more per year for the next 98 years to preserve the significant cultural and historical resources of the property. Given the vast size of the property combined with the limited availability of contiguous land in Albuquerque, the development of this property will most assuredly shape the city’s future.

A portion of the community SunCal is developing, to be known as the Lower Petroglyphs, abuts the Petroglyph National Monument, a site containing Indian rock art dating back thousands of years.



Crew Chief Fred Read takes a fence shot within the northwest tract of the Atrisco Land Grant property. The base is set up on top of the mesa in the background.

Assessing the Fluid Site

Although the boundary to the property was established by a quiet title suit in 1973, the descriptions for the south and northwest tracts did not form mathematically closed figures. Since the time of the suit, there has been significant development on the east and south areas of the site. The south tract included several parcels that were carved out over the years--for the county jail, a racetrack, an FAA tower, two mobile home parks and a flood control dam as well as residential subdivisions on the east. The tract was encumbered by several other easements and exceptions as well; 135 adjoiners exist on the north side of the tract. Amid these challenges, the project site continued to be fluid as properties were sold during the survey performed by Precision Surveys.

The northwest tract and Rancho Grande at the far northwest corner are mostly vacant, but many areas were difficult to access due to terrain. Some areas of the site were accessed through Rio Rancho, a community to the north of Albuquerque. Other local surveyors were kind enough to provide copies of work they had performed in the area, which proved very helpful. A local rancher let the crew use roads through his property to access property corners. Ongoing exploratory oil well drilling was active on the northwest tract that had to be surveyed. In all, the title commitment had more than 500 exceptions that had to be sorted through, including right of way acquisitions and grants of easements that had to be plotted throughout the site.

Research Specialist Lisa Parish said the greatest challenge of her research was in gathering the massive amount of information required. This included showing the legal description of the site, and recording data and ownership information for the several hundred adjoining properties. “Doing deed searches on properties that have not changed hands since the land was granted to an heir in the early 1900s took hours of research time in front of a microfiche machine in the office of the county clerk and many more hours of searching different databases on the computer,” Parish says. “Adding to the difficulty was the fact that a large number of the properties had ‘also known as’ tract numbers listed by the county assessor’s office, making it twice as difficult to search for deeds or ownership documents since they could be listed under either tract number.” Parish also conducted research at the Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico Department of Transportation, the National Park Service and the local district court.



Surveyor Neto Rey Terrazas checks the receiver memory during a static session. Mount Taylor near Grants, N.M. is in the background.

Establishing a Plan of Attack

Once the research was sorted through, the Precision Surveys crew set their sights on the field work. The survey of the irregularly shaped parcel encompassing almost 56,000 acres needed to be completed within three months to coincide with the scheduled sale closing. The site is approximately 15 miles across from north to south and 16 miles across from east to west. The border of the site is more than 87 miles long, and the approximate size of the south tract alone is equivalent to the borough of Manhattan. The size and shape of the site presented several challenges for the crew.

The first challenge was the establishment of a static GPS network. The network was designed to provide the best geometry while providing points that could be used as base stations for the subsequent RTK surveys. Bob Green of Vectors Inc., Precision Surveys’ equipment supplier in Albuquerque, provided valuable advice during the crew’s consultation for the network design and implementation. Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) 5700 and 5800 GPS systems were chosen and used for the collection of static data. Eight GPS receivers were used so each control point could be occupied for at least 2.5 hours. Coordination across such a large site was critical to ensure the crew had adequate time coverage to establish good base lines. A schedule was established for each session, and luckily, every crew member had good cell phone service.



Mother Nature's Opposition

Day one of the field work did not bode well for the timely completion of the project. Large thunderstorms had swept through the area the evening before, flooding the northwest portion of the site. On his way to the northwesterly control point early in the morning, Surveyor Neto Rey Terrazas battled driving through thick fog. Before long, his truck got stuck in the mud. Luckily, his trusty backup vehicle, an ATV, carried him the remaining five miles to the collection point. He was still able to set up by the scheduled time. Later, Medrano and Terrazas were able to pull the truck out of the mud and tow it to the highway. Needless to say, it was a long, wet, muddy first day.



Read takes the last fence shot at the Rio Puerco on the westernmost edge of the property.

A Massive Site to Behold

Two more days of static surveys were completed prior to post processing the data. Fortunately, the data collection went mostly as planned. Only one setup failed to collect for one of the sessions, but the crew had enough redundancy on that point to offset that session. The collected static data was supplemented with CORS data. Select stations were sent through the NGS OPUS program as a check of the post-processed data. Once the data was processed, the RTK surveys began. The site was broken down into smaller pieces: the 13,657-acre south tract was done first, followed by the 24,620-acre northwest tract, and finally the 17,680-acre Rancho Grande tracts. (The 3,627-acre remaining portion of the northeast tract was finished earlier in the year.)

Coordination of each field crew assignment was critical to ensure no areas were missed or that there was no duplication of effort. Crew Chief Fred Read and Surveyor Terrazas both agreed that the sheer size of the site was the most intimidating part of the project. Terrazas used the firm’s Yamaha Rhino off-road 4x4 to get around the site. “It was a huge time saver,” he says, “and a good way to observe the environment. On my travels around the site, I saw a newborn calf, a burning stolen vehicle, and what was thought to be a squatter who turned out to be a caretaker hired by Westland.”

Read prefers to walk and logged several miles on his feet on the Atrisco project. Along with property corners, he found small pieces of petrified wood, and saw coyotes, antelope and golden eagles.



The centuries-old Atrisco land will soon be a massive community of residences underpinned by the rich Atrisco culture and heritage so well known to the Albuquerque area.

Piecing It Together

The time-critical nature of the project, combined with the massive size and scope, required shrewd organization of the large amount of information retrieved for use on the survey. It was paramount that the field team understand the data; thus, everything had to be indexed so it was easy to find and use in a fast and accurate manner. Each property was assigned a unique designation and a spreadsheet was developed that showed all of the pertinent information. These tables were incorporated into the final drawings.

Using Carlson (Maysville, Ky.) Survey 2004, drafting of the improvements such as fences and utilities began as soon as the data was downloaded. Dirt trails in the middle of the site were digitized from rectified aerial photographs while roads near boundaries were collected in RTK continuous mode. Survey Tech Ken Spalding said that “even the digitization was not a simple process since there were hundreds of miles of two-track roads throughout the site. The area is a playground for people with four-wheel drive vehicles, and encompassed such a wide geographic area that approximately 400 megabytes of images were used to acquire the road data. This meant that the interpolation had to be done in sections with only a few images loaded at a time or a regeneration would slow even our fastest computers to a crawl.”

As found property corners were collected, boundary analysis began for coordinate geometry calculations, plotting and drafting. Over the years, several surveys had been completed in areas bordering and within the property. Several adjoining plats and deeds had to be plotted. As the crew tried to establish the boundary, they ran into several areas where the data from a certain area did not coincide with the overall boundary established by the quiet title suit. These discrepancies made reconciliation of the boundary a challenge. Areas were observed (and noted on the survey) where adjoining property owners were using the site for unauthorized access. “The large number of easements that had to be sorted through was the hardest part of the plat work,” says Mario Lucero, head survey CADD tech. “This easement work was complicated by the fact that many of the easements referenced monuments that were no longer in existence, some referenced monuments incorrectly and others mathematically didn’t work. Being able to plot the locations of the existing objects related to these easements was critical in deciphering these documents. You could initially place an electric easement plotted from documents onto the occasional easement right of way monuments found, allowing you to resolve these discrepancies.”

Mike Engelhardt was tasked with performing the initial quality assurance checks of the plat, running closures on all tracts and easements plotted on the final plat, and ensuring that all information required for future surveyors to retrace the survey was included on the plat.



Beyond the Survey

As work progressed on the survey, the Precision Surveys crew fielded questions from numerous attorneys of the purchaser and lender regarding land areas and encumbrances. The area of the property was very important to the lender because the land was being used as collateral for the loan. To assist the attorneys, Jessica Medrano prepared maps showing commercial “out parcels” owned by Westland, which included each site on a city street map as well as base maps of the entire property. She also prepared individual sheets that showed a vicinity map, a photograph of the site and site statistics such as legal description, acreage and zoning. She labeled the title commitment parcel number for each tract and color-coded the parcels to a specific geographic area that tied back to a color-coded spreadsheet. She also compiled a map showing all the properties overlaid on an aerial photograph. “The large drawings slowed my computer to a crawl and the plotter had a hard time handling the large files,” she remembers.



A New Legacy

With an extraordinary effort involving long nights and lost weekends by all staff members of Precision Surveys, the deadline for a December closing was met. Ongoing work includes finalization of a boundary survey to be recorded and continuation of setting property corners.

The centuries-old Atrisco land will soon take on a whole new phase of development. For efforts on behalf of Spanish rule, the land was given as reward. It later became part of U.S. territory, and was used for oil exploration, and in part, for an airport and a highway. Soon, it will be a massive community of residences underpinned by the rich Atrisco culture and heritage so well known to the Albuquerque area.

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